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Ireland forwards coach Paul O’Connell has aura, work ethic and humility few can match

Former Lions captain is tailor-made for Irish forwards coaching role

The former Munster, Irish and Lions captain Paul O'Connell has given his first press conference as newly appointed Ireland rugby side forwards coach. Video: VOTN /IRFU

From there to here. October 29th 2020 and Paul O’Connell is holding a press conference.

“Too full-on for me,” says O’Connell. He is talking about coaching professional club rugby.

“Over in Paris, where you have 40 games a season . . . I found it tricky from a family point of view . . . I’m not looking to coach right now. It’s not something that whets my appetite .”

When O’Connell swept into his Irish forwards coaching job just weeks ago it was wearing his player-warrior super hero suit; a leader, a captain, figuratively and physically substantial. Power appointments are always heavy voltage. But the intensity and appeal was still as Paulie the player, not O’Connell the coach, his arrival more bristling with potential than proven ability.


“He has an aura, a presence,” said Dave Kilcoyne last week. “You want to gravitate towards those people.”

Kilcoyne speaks like many who have circled O'Connell's orbit. It was less than 70 days after his un-whet appetite that Ireland announced his anointment. From the outside it might have seemed hard to square the late autumn comments with the mid-winter appointment. But O'Connell is as O'Connell does.

What he also explained in November was the easier fit of national teams. A former assistant in the Irish Under 20s with Noel McNamara, tournament driven rugby, not week to week, was a better career fix. For those who were listening, O’Connell was messaging.

He was done with the family-unfriendly 40 games a season and routine grind with Stade Francais. He was done with Paris. But he wasn’t done. He laid down what he would not do and he hinted at what he could do in the future. It took until early January for Irish rugby to see things his way.

O'Connell had also come home after a season of struggle. On his return from France the rumour mill cranked up. There was a rift between O'Connell and Stade's Heyneke Meyer, the former Springboks coach. There were cultural differences. The Irish, O'Connell and former Munster teammate, Mike Prendergast, the South Africans and the French couldn't gel. There were language problems.

“It was a tricky enough year at Stade and that will stand to him,” says Prendergast. “I know how it was documented but there was never any problem between Paul and Heyneke. We all just headed off in our own directions.”

Humility is a common theme regarding the 41-year-old. It shouldn't be confused with being ordinary or timid. He's not demure or biddable

Mostly it was O’Connell being himself, believing in certain methods and philosophies and imperatives. Then, self-examination and being decisive when he couldn’t find enough reasons to stay, his stubborn honesty was prepared to face whatever commentary came his way.

Same ideas

“There was a lot of media commentary in France on all of this and about five per cent of it is true,” says Meyer. “Most of the stuff written was bullshit. The French media are always looking for a controversial angle. Coaches don’t always agree. The defence coach [John McFarland] was one of my best friends and we had a lot of differences.

“I was one of the first guys to text Paul congratulations when he got the Irish job. With the season already started [in France], there wasn’t much time to discuss philosophies, we just had to win. When we spoke more over the season we realised our philosophies around rugby are the same. I know I have the same ideas around rugby as Joe Schmidt and Joe has had a huge influence on Paul.

“Some great players who become coaches do not want to put in the hard work. They like the limelight. They like to be in the newspapers. Paul is humble. I do not want to give Paul too much advice, or sound like some guru. The only thing I would tell Paul is to be himself.”

Paul O’Connell: “I think the leader in him, the swimmer in him, the golfer in him, knows that the first thing that goes under pressure is technique . . . as a player I would have called him a very technical rugby player,” said Brian Hickey, former Munster forwards coach. Photograph: Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Humility is a common theme regarding the 41-year-old. It shouldn’t be confused with being ordinary or timid. He’s not demure or biddable. He’s not fearful and he never has been. As O’Connell was when taking on the Under 20s or leaving France, decisiveness and drive were factors. He’s always been prepared to do what made him better. That’s been evident for people to see from as early as his school years.

Brian Hickey, the former Munster forwards coach under Alan Gaffney and current coach of Cork Constitution, remembers an eager teenage lock, who instantly put himself in the fast lane. Just 19-years-old, O’Connell fearlessly settled into a Young Munster pack alongside hardwoods Peter Clohessy and Ger Earls.

In those days coach Hickey had to be judicious at the midweek training sessions. Players with reputations of having an edge to their game freely demonstrated why that was so even against their own players.

“When we had the Rugby League attack versus defence in training I’d always have Ger Earls on Dessie Clohessy because Ger was the only one who would consistently tackle Dessie,” says Hickey.

“If you had them on the same side it just became a mess. But Paul upset that dynamic completely, because whatever side I put him on, even as an 18-, 19-year -old, he didn’t hold back in training games. He would be as quick to tackle Dessie as Ger would and have no problem carrying into fellas. What always struck me, from day one, was there were no half measures with Paul. He was full on in everything he did.

“I have not coached him since 2008 but even back then he would be so specific about how guys lifted him or set up. That was when he was still a player.”

There will be a rush to judge O'Connell and the Irish lineout, with the set piece at the weekend against Wales perhaps the first glimpse of his work

The distance O’Connell has had to travel in transition from secondrow to coach is less than most. It’s a characteristic he shares with Leo Cullen. That has been borne out by the speed of transformation. O’Connell left his role as an advisor with the Munster Academy to become an assistant coach with the Ireland Under-20s in December 2017. He then joined Stade as their forwards coach under Meyer in August 2018 before returning to idle among underage teams at UL Bohemians and Young Munster’s senior squad, before hitching to Andy Farrell and Ireland at the end of 2020.

Powerful force

The first conversation then Irish Under 20 coach McNamara had with O’Connell took place in Limerick. He drove to Finnegans’ pub in Annacotty, just outside the city on the main Dublin Road. Face to face it was to see if O’Connell had an interest in coaching players around the age he was when piling into Ger Earls.

McNamara left Limerick with clear impressions, none causing anxiety. He says, as Meyer did, O’Connell struck him as being humble. That humility in combination with his standing in rugby would become a hugely powerful force.

He struck him as being eager to learn and as being curious about coaching and the process of coaching. O’Connell was also interested in detail. The meeting was what McNamara had hoped it would be.

“The curiosity to learn was something that was very, very clear,” he says. “His humility , very high levels of self awareness. He’s hard-working and that would have been very evident from the start. He’s a deep thinker about the game and he cares about people. He cared about the players he was involved with. He cared about the coaching group and how he fitted into that.

“He has a very, very high standing in the world in the game. But there was an incredible absence of ego from day one. From the moment he came into the group and got involved, it was very much an absolute absence of ego. He was there to work hard and to improve the group.

Paul O’Connell on media duties during the Six Nations last year. “It was a tricky enough year at Stade and that will stand to him,” says Mike Prendergast.” Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

“I would never separate the person from the player. Equally I would never separate the person from the coach. The qualities of Paul as a person were evident. I think it’s also fair to say he would have probably been a coach even as a player. Around the lineout with Ireland and Munster he would have had a very strong voice and a very clear view in terms of what that it should look like.”

Hickey does not disagree. O’Connell’s diligence about his own game and the way and level he wanted to play at also had a knock-on effect in the teams he played with, Munster, Ireland and the Lions, captain on all. For his performance to be effective, he required help from the players around him. They needed to be equally detailed.

“I could see that Paulie would be the natural lineout leader,” says Hickey. “The culture in the group was to do a lot of analysis around the lineout and kick off. He’d have the props around him after a training session. Just an incredibly diligent man. No short cuts.

“I think the leader in him, the swimmer in him, the golfer in him, knows that the first thing that goes under pressure is technique. I can’t speak of his coaching. But as a player I would have called him a very technical rugby player.”

It is O’Connell’s status as a coach, not a player, that will be the point of difference with Ireland. Just as Farrell was an iconic figure, the players, by necessity selfish in their own demands to improve and constant need to win, will ask how he is going to make them better. What will be his point of difference for them.

A playlist

In France Prendergast talks of O'Connell "striking up relationships quite easily". He did so across country lines with a number of players including French forward Yoann Maestri and Italy's Serge Parisse, who were running the Stade lineout.

McNamara believes the Irish players will realise quickly O’Connell can improve them. He says O’Connell improved him, that he learned things around the lineout, ruck, maul and tackle. But that doesn’t mean he won’t be challenged with Ireland as Hickey once was by the teenage lock.

“Many of them will not have the same feel for the lineout that he had,” says Hickey. “That was a small area of contention that I had with Paul. On a Monday night I would give a play list of what I felt would work against a particular opposition. Paul would say: ‘We don’t know they will set up that way against us, so there will be a little ‘wait and see’ from the first lineout.

“I’d be there: ‘Paul, and maybe one or two of the group, can wing it but there are two or three other fellas who need a prompt, [to be told]what to do.’ That’s where I think when he goes into the coaching, it will be very difficult to bring everyone to the level he was at.”

Shape-shifting is part of the alteration, part of the movement into coaching. Part of that is how to get things accomplished in a vicarious way. There will be a rush to judge O’Connell and the Irish lineout, with the set piece at the weekend against Wales perhaps the first glimpse of his work.

But McNamara feels it would be wrong to expect epiphanies or dramatic makeovers. Nuanced change, realignments of players who are at different levels of competence takes commitment and buy in and ultimately ability. But O’Connell has the players’ attention. He has their respect. First base was easy.

“You think of Caelan Doris. You think of James Ryan. You think of Andrew Porter. You think of Tom O’Toole, even Tadhg Beirne,” says McNamara. “They are relatively young in international terms. There is some experience there in CJ and Tadhg and Peter O’Mahony...

Paul has the leadership. But he is very, very good at relaying the message. We need coaches like Paul in rugby

“I really wouldn’t be judging Paul on this game [v Wales]. Give him an opportunity to work with the group, put his stamp on them. Bring in some new principles around the areas he’s been given. Then you judge.

“Somebody like James Ryan with a very high standing in the game, can he take him on another couple of levels. Can he help James to become a really world class, consistent operator, which he’s not a million miles away from. I think that’s going to be the barometer.”

The bare bones. O'Connell brings 108 caps for Ireland, who he captained 31 times. He brings a 2009 Grand Slam win. He brings the 2014 and 2015 Six Nations titles, captaining Ireland in the latter. He brings three Lions tours in 2005, 2009 and 2013, captaining the team to South Africa in '09 and he brings two Heineken Cup wins with Munster. Players can pick those clean.

“It is a very astute appointment by Irish rugby,” says Meyer. “I am very proud of him. Paul has the leadership. But he is very, very good at relaying the message. We need coaches like Paul in rugby.”

From there to here. Ireland with a coach that it needs.